Before the Ink Dries: Why Body Art Shouldn't Be Part of an Incentive Plan

May 3, 2013

I'm all for offering workers incentives, but my guess is this latest stunt is as much about getting ink as it is about getting workers to get inked.

Rapid Realty, a real estate company in New York, is offering its lower-paid employees a huge 15 percent raise on their commissions if they are willing to get a tattoo of the company's logo anywhere on their body. I'm not sure what message that sends, but it certainly doesn't say work hard and you'll reap the rewards. And since tattoos are difficult to remove, it sort of implies your sworn allegiance to the brand. There's nothing wrong with wanting workers to spend their careers in your company, but wouldn't a bumper sticker or silicone wristband suffice?

And who's in charge of verifying tattoos placed in, ahem, private areas? And what purpose does a covered tattoo serve anyway for promoting a company? What happens if things don't work out? I guess the worker's gonna need that extra 15 percent to pay for the tattoo removal down the road.

Incentives should be fun ways to motivate a staff to do well or stay with a company longer. I prefer options that allow anyone to attain the award through accomplishment. Tattoos are just not my thing, so I would have no way to ink that deal. Even if I had a stellar quarter, I wouldn't even get an extra quarter because of my personal no-tat policy. That's not right. On the other hand, an ABC News story says you can also receive the bonus by doing charity work, producing benchmarks or mentoring a new employee. Now that's more like it.

At one publication I worked for, the editor would hand out a series of quarterly awards that anyone could win. Depending on the category, you could get a $100 or $200 gift card. One of the prizes that I cashed in on was for what he called the "catch of the quarter," meaning the biggest or most unusual mistake that got caught before hitting the presses.

Incentives aren't new by any means. In 1914, Henry Ford famously offered a $5 per day pay incentive to attract top talent, which was a huge amount of money at the time.

But workers weren't guaranteed a fiver; $2.66 of the amount came from a profit-sharing plan that went to folks who swore off "unwholesome" activities such as drinking and gambling. Also, only single men and women were eligible as well as married men whose wives didn't work outside the home. It wasn't exactly a level playing field, and I won't even get into the morality police aspect of it all.

As I've said, I prefer my incentives to be open to everybody without gimmicks, like what Bart Lorang did with his tech company, FullContact. He offers his workers a $7,500 bonus to use their vacation time and not work during that time. Software company SAS has a college scholarship program for the children of workers in the company. And snack-maker Bridgetown Natural Foods pays its workers to attend quarterly healthy-eating and shopping seminars.

These are the kinds of incentives that should be getting the ink in the press.

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames.